Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sports Meet

By Ruth
Today and tomorrow the school is holding their annual sports meet. My students were asking what sports meets are like in America, but I don’t really think we have them, at least not at university. It could be like a super glorified version of field day, but I’ve never been to one of those so I’m not really sure.

My favorite part about the sports meet is that we have two days off of classes. The students like this aspect as well, but it’s not such a holiday for them since they still are required to attend the sports meet all day both days. The freshmen seemed pretty excited, since it is the first time. The older students were coming in to borrow books to read since they expect a lot of boredom.

Anyway, it sure seems like a big deal because students have been practicing for months. For the past week, we have been hearing loud music and orders issuing from the stadium across campus. Yesterday, the students had to practice in the pouring rain. Not so much for the sports part, more for the big performance. The Chinese do love their performances. Think of the Olympic opening ceremonies on a college level.

There was the parade of athletes and the required speeches, which we fortunately missed. Then there was a drum dance, hundreds of freshmen performing morning exercises, and hundreds of sophomores performing tai chi, with a few extra talented kung fu people thrown in.

The students were thrilled that we came. We only stayed for about an hour but came back in the afternoon to see Christina run in a relay. Everyone was hugely excited about the foreigner participating, whether they knew her or not. Even though the rest of us were just standing around taking pictures, we were still pretty popular. Several random students came up and nervously asked to take pictures with us, which they can now show to everyone they know when they talk about their close foreigner friends.

After Christina ran her part of the race and walked back across the field, the students went wild with cheers. Actually, when Kevin and I waved to our students as we left the field, they all started yelling and cheering too, and we hadn’t even done anything. It doesn’t take much to impress them. Sometimes it’s kind of fun to be celebrities.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chinese + English = Chinglish

By Kevin

I apologize in advance for the shameless plug, but I just published a book titled "Chinese + English = Chinglish." You should check it out.

A couple years ago, a couple of Chinglish sign photos that I took were included in a book called "Found in Translation," which has gone on to sell more than 50,000 copies. While I thought the book was pretty good, I also thought to myself, "I can do better than that."

So this 80-page book contains more than 100 of the best depictions of Chinglish that I've managed to photograph in our three years in China. Most are prominent public signs and advertisements, but many others are packaging and clothing.

So far it's only available through online publisher, but if anyone other than just family and friends show an interest, maybe wider distribution might be possible. Shipping is a bit pricy, but I discovered that if you enter this promo code: "hpfreeshipping" (without quotation marks, naturally) at checkout, shipping is free up to $10.

Oh yeah, I also made another blog about the book and Chinglish, which you are more than welcome to visit: here.

By by Kevin T. Felt

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Up on the Heights

by Ruth

Yesterday our team was looking over a passage in the Psalms that says,

“He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, so I can go up on the heights.”

As we asked for insights into what we were reading, this was the sentence that stuck out to me. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer. Rarely are we placed in the “perfect environment.” I guess really there isn’t even such a thing. So since we are living in an imperfect world, we have to undergo the necessary changes that allow us to function and even thrive in our environment.

Mountain goats are one of the few animals that can live in the heights because they are made for them. Sometimes we are transplanted out of our natural situation and put into a very different environment (say, moving to a weird, very different country on the other side of the world – just as a hypothetical example). And then perhaps we feel like big, clumsy donkeys trying to climb around on perilous cliffs.

Anyway, that’s how I feel sometimes. I think, “Am I really meant for this? This doesn’t seem like it’s me.” For one, I’m not a naturally adventurous person. I’ve always liked the idea of travel but find that the actual process seems more unpleasant each time I try it. And this life involves a lot of travel. I haven’t traveled in about two months and it already seems like eternity. I realized we spent a fourth of the year living out of suitcases, and that realization doesn’t excite me.

I am also such an introvert. When my students took personality tests last month, they all guessed that I was outgoing and talkative because that’s the role I often need to take on. We spend a lot of time around students – in the classroom, in office times, having them over to our apartment, doing activities together. I enjoy it most of the time, but sometimes (say when I’m spending hours with 20 people I don’t know), I get really tired of it. I find all the social stuff draining, yet it’s part of what we’re here for. Wouldn’t it be better if I loved to be around people all the time and just couldn’t get enough of it?

I stink at languages. Not just because I’m lazy and a bad student, though that’s certainly part of it. Languages don’t excite me; they make me want to crawl into a corner and hide. One huge obstacle between me and the possibility of staying in China long term is this prison camp called “Language School.” Dun-dun-dun! I’m glad I chose a country with one of the most difficult languages in the world.

Oh and let’s see. I like to have order and control. I like to know what is going on. I value aesthetics. I don't like lots of attention. I thrive under stability and routine. Which makes me wonder sometimes, “What in the world am I doing here?”

This is why the sentence caught my attention. It doesn’t say, “Good thing we’re deer so we can easily go up on the heights.” It’s says he makes our feet to be what they need to be. He doesn’t just leave us a donkey and give us a mountain climbing manual. He changes us to fit the situation. He makes us into who we need to be.

I like the way one version put it even better: “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.” Hey look at that! I love security! The mountain goats go up on the mountain because they can be safe from their predators. Even though they are standing on a dangerous ledge, they are secure.

I still don’t like the idea of living in a place where I don’t belong. But it is encouraging to know that hypothetically, if it were ever to happen that I was transplanted into a weird and different country, maybe I could be made into what I needed to be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Apartment People

by Ruth
Thanks to the economic slump, many of my friends (the non-China variety, anyway) seem to be buying houses this year. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get really jealous about that sometimes. I love houses. I went through this phase in middle school of wanting to be an architect. I borrowed the whole collection of house plan books from our local library and poured through them. I stocked up on graph paper and designed a bunch of my own houses. When I realized that architecture required a whole lot of math, that plan died really quickly, but I still like houses.

I know that I have it pretty good here. Our apartment is really nice and big. But an apartment is just not as cool as a house. I was reading part of Beverly Cleary's autobiography recently, and she said her mother told her not to trust people who lived in apartments. Something about those kind of people not being stable enough. Sure, it was the 1930’s, but I thought that was pretty funny. And possibly true. We don't even stay in one place long enough to successfully grow house plants.

Our apartment is only a few years old but it already has some interesting quirks. For example, last night a bird tried to push through the paper cup blocking the hole in the wall. It freaked me out a little at first because it reminded me of a certain bat episode when I was younger. Then I thought about how it was a little strange to have a paper cup forming part of my wall.

Over the past few months, the outer walls have become covered with dark spots where some kind of nails from the wall joints show through or maybe rusted through the plaster. They have gradually become darker until the walls now look like they have a pox. We asked the school if we could paint the walls but they said no. They do own the apartment, so I guess that is reasonable. I really miss being able to paint, though. Sometimes I just browse through enjoying all the different paint colors. Since we can’t paint, I was hoping to hang something up to cover part one of the diseased walls.

But today we discovered that while the inside walls of the apartment are indestructible concrete that destroys anything less than extra strength nails, the outer walls are flimsy plaster which crumble under the pressure of a nail. Instead of covering up part of the wall, we just ended up with a couple of caved in spots in the plaster.

With the coming of warm weather, we have had a lot more interactions with the kitchen drain, as well. It feels like interactions, anyway, with the drain speaking through a variety of different smells. There is the classic bad drain smell that wafts up whenever someone in one of the eight stories above us flushes the toilet. Then there is the rotten egg smell. The old garbage smell. The garden dirt smell. And the most original so far – the browning hamburger smell. That one was actually kind of nice. It made it seem like I was cooking. I don’t mind garden dirt either; it smells like wet dirt after a warm rain. I just don't think it fits very well in the kitchen.

There are many things I am thankful for, though. I still think our laundry porch is pretty cool, with the clothes racks that can be raised and lowered. The heated floors make a big difference in winter. And hot water in the kitchen sink makes washing dishes nicer. And the paper cup thing is a little funny. So long as the bird doesn't succeed in pushing it's way through. I should put something more durable in there, like a plastic water bottle.

And maybe some day I'll be one of those house people. I'll settle down and commit to a real houseplant. I'll settle down and live in one place for forever and ever or at least three years. That sounds nice.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


by Ruth

Last weekend we decided it was time for a cheese run. On our first semester trip to Metro (the supermarket in Xian which has import foods) we were shocked and dismayed to discover they no longer had the large 6 kilo cheddar cheese blocks we had bought in the fall. The small, overpriced bits we bought before were almost gone. The future of our meals depended on finding more cheese.

We say that Xian is an hour away, but of course it’s not that simple. Actually, there is a 10 minute walk to the bus station, 15-20 minutes waiting around for a Xian bus (they leave whenever they are full), and 1 hour on the bus. Once we get into Xian, we pick up a city bus that takes us from the north-east corner of town to the far south where Metro is. We usually stop in the middle of the city for some Pizza Hut or Subway, such a nice treat, and sometimes stop again before Metro to stock up on some dvds. With no stops, it’s about an hour bus ride. With stops, well, it’s usually mid-afternoon when we arrive at Metro. Metro has two whole rows of imported goods. We stock up on the essentials like cereal, brownie mix, spaghetti noodles, and salsa. But when we headed over to the cheese section, there was still no cheddar. Just miniscule packets of Monterrey Jack, enough to last half a week. Fortunately, we had a plan B.

We had a business card for some kind of food wholesale place Christina knew about. Wes called and found out they had the cheddar we were looking for. The only problem was, we didn’t really know where it was. Christina had been there once and had a very vague memory of what it was like. We loaded up our purchases into backpacks and shopping bags and set out to find a taxi.

Metro is a horrible place for getting taxis. There are plenty of them – they just won’t stop for you. We spent 10 minutes flagging down and being rejected by dozens of taxis before crossing the road to spend another 10 minutes flagging down and being rejected by taxis from the other direction. Finally, we found someone who was actually serious about this taxi-driving business and agreed to take us.

The business card had an address but addresses aren’t always marked very well. Once we were on the right road, we all looked for any building numbers we could find. We finally found the right number, but it looked like a school gate, not a warehouse. The taxi driver kept on going for another block and a half before we finally convinced him we wanted to stop. We piled out and hiked back down the road, stopping several times to ask an old lady who couldn’t help us at all but was still very friendly.

When we got back to the right address, Wes peered inside the gate to ask the guard if we were in the right place. Strangely enough, we were. We walked along a small road lined with trees and aging apartment buildings. After turning several corners, the street noise receded. The air was quiet and filled with dandelion-type wisps that floated in and out of shadows. A cat sat on top of a brick wall in the sun, watching as we passed by. Colorful blankets were airing clothes lines. We looped our way around several buildings, past one or two people and five or six cats. This sure didn’t seem like the area for a wholesale warehouse, but the man we asked told us to keep going around one more corner. We turned the corner and reached a dead end.

On the right, an old red door, probably ten or twelve feet high, was cracked open. Christina peered inside to an empty, shaded courtyard. When Wes called out, a woman appeared at the doorway asking if we were the ones who had called. She led us inside, where we piled all our bags onto old, umbrella-covered restaurant style tables. I didn’t mind leaving it there – clearly there was no one around to steal it.

The owners of this out of the way place led us through several small store rooms filled with boxes of imported goods. We looked through boxes of pasta, large containers of spices, and huge cans of jalapeƱos. I was excited to find cream of mushroom soup – and I don’t even like mushrooms. But I am realizing this year how many recipes use cream soups and have been missing them. We went into a freezer room and found tortillas. Finally, we went into the fridge room. As promised, they had a number of large blocks of cheddar cheese, and for not a bad price – $4-5 per kilo.

We already had backpacks and bags full of items, but we pulled out new bags and added our purchases. It was quite a useful little back-alley shopping place. It will come in handy the next time we need cheese. If we can ever find it again.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It gets worse

Still grading exams. I didn't expect this, but they managed to get worse. On one of the first quizzes I gave them, it seemed that the average class grade went up as the week went along, so I made multiple versions of exams to discourage sharing of info with friends from other classes. This time I just made A and B versions of two exams: 1A and 1B for Tuesday and Wednesday classes (only difference is the questions are in a different order or multiple choice answers are mixed up, so if they decide to peek at their neighbor's exam, it won't help) and a 2A and 2B version for the two Thursday classes.

I expected that the Tuesday group might have slightly higher scores. I was wrong.

Here's the rundown
o As
1 B
1 C
6 Ds
34 Fs (80% of the class)

8 solid Fs (50-59%)
14 Gs (40-49%)
10 Hs (30-39%)
2 Is (20-29%)

Maybe the next exam should be open book?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Just when you thought they might pass...

By Kevin

Here are a few examples of actual test answers I got today and yesterday (I just listed a few of the more absurd ones - these were chosen from a box of possible fill-in-the blank answers. Otherwise, I suspect they would have left it completely blank or created even more random offerings):
  • The largest city in Scotland: Buddhists, Scottish
  • This many people died or left Ireland from 1841 to 1851, as a result of the Great Potato Famine: Protestants, King Peter, Sinn Fein, England, German
  • The political party of the IRA: King Arthur, Buddhists, Chaucer, Scotland
  • Believe that the Pope speaks with the authority of Christ, as his representative on earth: Emily Bronte, Old English, Chaucer, Buddhists
  • Believe that they have direct access to God through prayer and study of the Bible:India, Buddhists
  • "Beowulf" was written in which language? England
  • The 2006 peace treaty reached by the British and Irish governments for Northern Ireland: London, Cardiff, Japan, German
  • This country was once part of the British empire, but is now independent: England
  • Robbed from the rich and gave to the poor: Catholics, Sinn Fein, Gaelic, Glasgow, Northern Ireland
  • Fictional king known for knights of the Round Table and pulling the sword from the stone: Buddhists, Japan
  • Wrote "Hamlet:" Cardiff
  • Wrote "Pride & Prejudice:" King Arthur
  • Wrote "The Canterbury Tales:" King Arthur, Robin Hood
  • Wrote "A Tale of Two Cities:" Protestants, Sinn Fein
  • Labeled map of England as USA and its capital as Walta hood.
  • Another labelled the Republic of Ireland as Germany (which wasn't on the map, by the way, it was just the UK and Ireland), then went on to call the capital of Wales "Berlin."
  • Capital of England: Catholics, Sinn Fein, The Weald
  • Capital of Scotland: Buddhists, Virgire, Catholics, Beacons
  • Capital of Wales: Buddhists
  • Capital of Northern Ireland: Magna Carta, Gaelic
As much as I wish this was an April Fool's Joke, it isn't. I'm extremely frustrated. I just got done grading exams for my "Society and Culture of Major English Speaking Countries" class. One class of 48 students down (minus a couple absences), three to go. So far, the rundown: 0As, 5Bs, 4 Cs, 8Ds, 31Fs. Actually, if I were to break it down into increasing letters for every 10 percent, it'd be 9 solid Fs (50-59%), 9 Gs (40-49%), 5 Hs (30-39%), and a whopping 7 Is -- yes, seven people scored between 20 and 30 percent on this exam.

I feel like a horrible, terrible, sorry excuse for a teacher. I've never been in a class in which 2/3 of us failed any exam. And I didn't even give anyone a zero for cheating like I usually would (clearly it didn't matter if most of them cheated - the person next to each of them had a completely different version of the test). And, going into the exam, I thought I made it easy. I told them what to study. I even gave them a study guide and notes to work with, since I figured that a large percentage couldn't understand the finer details when I speak. I even lifted numerous exact questions from earlier quizzes.

I had a hunch that they were bad students, but this is a little unbelievable. Even if I were to curve it so that the highest score (an 88%) got 100%, that'd only bring the 9 Fs up into the realm of Ds.

But since someone did manage to do that well, that means that someone learned something, doesn't it?

I can't decide. Is it because their English is that bad? Maybe they simply don't understand anything I say and can't handle the reading.

My hunch, however, is that most of them simply aren't good students. After all, they are all on the 3-year track here (something like an associates degree). Very few will move on to the 4-year track (if you pass enough tests you can become a 4-year student -- however one must study for two more years...kinda complicated). In fact, one student in that class said that only 3 were even trying to earn the 4-year degree. Apathy. So perhaps, when I assign a reading, the reason they groan is that they know they won't really read the 15 pages I'd assigned for the week (or at least won't read AND study them). The odd thing is that usually Chinese students are good at memorizing things. It seems like this content-heavy course should be right up their alley. Apparently it isn't.

How much grace can I give them? What am I saying if I pass these kids? Will they think that they actually learned anything about these countries (answering 20 questions out of 65 correctly makes me think they just guessed right). What am I saying if I fail them all? Will it make the school lose face? As glad as I was to have a chance to teach something other than Oral English, I'm rethinking that. Maybe I should just show them movies about the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada from here on out.